Reflectionary

Book Review: We Pray With Her

During the 2016 presidential campaign, a group of United Methodist clergywomen offered support to candidate Hillary Clinton, a fellow Methodist, by writing devotions and prayers to encourage her. We Pray With Her: Encouragement For All Women Who Lead (Abingdon, 2018) draws on the writing of seventy women. I am delighted that their work has been gathered into this book. 

The section sections focus on Call, Struggle, Courage, Resistance, and Persistence. The devotions interrogate our assumptions about scripture (Is it possible, as Rev. Elizabeth Quick writes, that Mary wasn’t at home on the day Martha complained about needing her help in the kitchen?) and bring the voices of famous women into the conversation, from Sor Juana to Audre Lorde to Jen Hatmaker. 

And their own voices are a gift, as they write frankly about challenges they have faced as leaders and women. 

What no one tells you about leadership is that things will change and with some change comes struggle. I was utterly unprepared when my professional and personal lives began to orbit on different planes.

Rev. Dr. Theresa S. Thames

The writers are defined as young, by which the publisher means under the age of 40, and the topics skew toward that age range. The prayers speak to particular situations in the lives of women, such as leaving a baby at daycare for the first time, or in a time of relationship difficulty, or when a parent is ill. Some prayers, though, speak to all ages of women in leadership. 

A Prayer at the Time of Burnout

God of mercy, I confess I feel like I am bereft of sinew, a bag of dry bones, and my spirit in ashes. I have tried to take it all on myself. I have failed to seek sustenance. Give me courage to seek help. Help me find a moment of Sabbath today, breathe into me and revive these bones. Help me trust that you will walk with me through this land. Amen. 

Rev. Sarah Karber

This book would make a wonderful Christmas gift, for women who lead in their work, and those who aspire to lead, whether they work in ministry or some other field. My only complaint is I would have loved a full list of the writers to be included. 

I received two copies of the book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review. I am delighted to have a copy to give away. Please leave a comment to be entered into a random drawing. 

Books

Book Review: A Gracious Heresy

I’ve heard the story from my Presbyterian colleagues about the Rev. David Bailey Sindt, who stood up at the 1974 General Assembly with a sign that read, “Is anybody else out there gay?” Other mainline denominations have their semi-famous gay icons, but what of the gay and lesbian people who took their own stands on less-remembered occasions? 

Connie L. Tuttle was one of them. The first out lesbian to graduate from Columbia Theological Seminary, Rev. Tuttle stood in protest during an Atlanta Presbytery meeting in the 1990s, compelling those in attendance to remember that they were discussing people, not merely policy, as they considered Amendment B. That event forms the spine of her memoir, A Gracious Heresy: The Queer Calling of an Unlikely Prophet(Resource Publications, 2018). She had no official standing to speak at the meeting, yet she stood, in a visible yet silent protest. 

Tuttle tells her at times tumultuous life story in frank prose. She does not spare herself and thereby gains the credibility that allows her to tell the truth, as any worthy prophet would, about the people whose preferences and prejudices affected her along the way. The narrative is grounded in the events of the world, giving the reader a sense of what it was like to be a young woman formed by the social and political climate of the late 1960s. Her childhood experiences as an Army brat exposed Tuttle to a non-denominational and accepting form of church, and that is what she hoped to find when, as a 20-something lesbian single mother, she began searching for a spiritual home and found it for a time in a Presbyterian congregation. In response to a strong sense of calling, she went to college in her 20s at Agnes Scott, with the goal of then going onto seminary. 

Call is not so much words as it is feeling. Not the imposition of feeling but the rise of relationship beyond words. (p. 23)

Tuttle’s writing voice communicates a sense of her energy and drive, whether she is remembering cooking for a community meal, taking a road trip, or learning how to be present to patients as a chaplain. Throughout she shares a vision of community in which people care for and nurture one another, despite the unkindness she faces from sexist and homophobic church and academic leaders. (For those who know anything about the Southern Presbyterian Church in the 1970s and 80s, many familiar names appear in the text.) She takes us into classrooms and meetings with faculty, including a story from her first day of classes, when the professor teaching “Formation of Ministry” informed the students they must guard against “zipper problems.”

Shocked, I looked around. Zipper problems? Two things bothered me about this statement. One: there were enough women in the room for him to have come up with a different euphemism. Or did this just refer to male clergy? And two: WHAT? You mean to tell me that the people who are supposed to model the highest standards of ethics are no more than clay-footed mongrels panting after any women in heat? (p. 143)

As I said above, her tone is frank, and that frankness was much-appreciated by this reader. Sexism and homophobia have not gone away in the decades since Tuttle graduated from Columbia, in the church or in the wider world. I take great encouragement from her determination to push back even then, and from the cause of that determination: she had a call to follow, and she was going to find a way to respond to what God put in her heart. 

When asked to describe her gifts for ministry during an assessment required for her seminary graduation, Tuttle explained that her wide experiences prepared her to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves, particularly those who had been hurt by the church.

I want my life to be prophetic and my actions to be pastoral. (p. 182)

What a worthy aspiration!

Connie Tuttle was never ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA). She went on to found Circle of Grace, “a small, progressive, ecumenical, feminist, Christian house church” in Atlanta, Georgia. She is part of the RevGalBlogPals blogging community; you can find her writing at The Gracious Heretic. I recommend her book to all who love to read call stories, and especially to readers who wonder why LGBTQ+ people stick with the church. (Short version: God called us.) Rev. Tuttle may be a heretic; she is certainly a prophet; she is also a hero.

I received a copy of the book in exchange for my honest review. (Cross-posted at RevGalBlogPals.)

Advent Wreath, Narrative Lectionary

Advent Wreath Liturgies, Narrative Lectionary Year 1

Advent 1 – Hope (Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:2-4; 3:17-19)

One: People of God, prophets like Habbakuk pointed to a future hope, a Savior.
Many: No one knew when he would come.
One: They only hoped they would recognize the Messiah, the Son of God.
Many: We wait with hope for the One who has come and is coming.
One: Today we light a candle to symbolize our hope. We hope in the One who will come.
(Light the candle of Hope.)
One: People of God, a New Hope is coming.
All: We will rejoice in the Lord.

Advent 2 – Peace (Esther 4:1-17)

One: People of God, Esther was a heroic woman who took a great risk to bring peace for her people. .
Many: We want peace to overcome struggle, violence, and cruelty.
One: It can be dangerous to call for peace.
Many: This might be the job God needs us to do.
One: Today we light a candle to symbolize God’s peace. We hope in the One who will come. We pray for God’s peace to prevail.
(Light the candles of Hope and Peace.)
One: People of God, take courage.
All: We take courage from the light of God’s peace.

Advent 3 – Joy (Isaiah 42:1-9)

One: People of God, Isaiah promised a servant God who would come to save us.
Many: The Savior will be a light to the nations.
One: People everywhere are eager for the justice he will teach and the joy he will bring.
Many: We will see prison doors opened and people set free.
One: Today we light a candle to symbolize the joy we anticipate. We hope in the One who will come. We pray for God’s peace to prevail. Our joy will come with God’s servant.
(Light the candles of Hope, Peace and Joy.)
One: People of God, great change lies ahead.
Many: We wait to see it with joy!

Advent 4 – Love (Matthew 1:18-25)

One: People of God, today we hear the story of an angel appearing in a dream.
Many: Joseph was a righteous man who heard God’s messenger.
One: Because of his deep faith, he trusted in God’s steadfast love.
Many: When we know God’s love, we can extend it to others.
One: Today we light a candle to symbolize the steadfast love of God. We hope in the One who will come. We pray for God’s peace to prevail. Our joy will come with God’s servant. God’s love never ends.
(Light the candles of Hope, Peace, Joy and Love.)
One: People of God, remember you are God’s beloved children.
Many: We celebrate God’s steadfast love!

Christmas Eve – Christ Candle (Luke 2:1-14, [15-20])

One: People of God, when the angels appeared, the shepherds were terrified.
Many: We will not fear, for this is the night of Good News!
One: We celebrate the good news of a baby, born in a stable.
Many: Tonight we light a candle to mark his birth.
One: We hope in the one who has come, Jesus Christ.
(Light the Candle of Hope.)
We pray for God’s peace to prevail.
(Light the Candle of Peace)
Our joy comes with God’s servant.
(Light the candle of Joy)
God’s love never ends.
(Light the candle of Love)
Born as one of us, Jesus became God’s living Word of Hope, Peace, Joy and Love.
(Light the Christ Candle)
Do not be afraid! The Good News is here!
All: Glory to God in the Highest!

Looking for a carol of response? Now It’s Time to Light the Candle includes Advent themes of hope, peace, joy and love.

Liturgies (2014) and carol (2015) are copyrighted by the Rev. Martha K. Spong. You are welcome to use these liturgies, based on the Narrative Lectionary Year 1, in weekly worship at your local church. You are also free to adapt them to your circumstances (using multiple readers, for instance). Please leave a comment to let me know where they will be used. This does not constitute permission to publish the readings as a set or to claim credit for them online or in print. Thank you, as always, to Working Preacher, for inventing and refining the Narrative Lectionary.

Reflectionary

Book Review: Loving and Leaving a Church

Her story begins as did many of ours.

They couldn’t really afford a full-time pastor, but they were determined to have one anyway.

In Maine in 2002, in Maryland a few years later, in Missouri and Mississippi right now, our stories begin in church council rooms and on neutral pulpit weekends, in conversations with judicatory staff and congregational meetings. The Rev. Barbara Melosh relates her version in Loving and Leaving a Church: A Pastor’s Journey (Westminster John Knox Press, 2018). A second-career pastor, Melosh experienced a midlife conversion and became ordained in the denomination of her childhood, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Pastor readers will recognize the idealism we bring with us from seminary, the sense that we have something unique to offer that will surely change the church that so clearly needs us. In this case, a declining congregation in a shifting neighborhood responds to attempts at outreach in ways that will resonate in many quarters. While Melosh is aware that she is unequipped – it’s the title of the first chapter – she must grapple with the facts.

They didn’t care about my degrees or my theological insights, my years of experience as a professor, my story of midlife conversion or my passion for language. At most, they were prepared to put up with it all, it that was what it took to get a pastor in place. (p. 32)

As Melosh grew into her call, she faced a familiar array of challenges: an inadequate budget, a neglected physical plant, competition between pillar families, a failure of hospitality to newcomers, and a church basement full of junk. The reader feels her cringe of disappointment when a visitor turns around and leaves with her child as soon as she sees the Sunday School room, and also shares her embarrassment when an urgent request is forgotten in the wake of an unrelated church crisis.

In all accounts of her ministry, Melosh is unflinching in her honesty about her own passions and failures as she recounts the events of her ministry with the congregation she calls the Saints. Through common trials and local peculiarities, the first wedding and the hardest funeral, she risks writing what many of us would rather not have to admit even though our stories contain similar chapters. Her equal frustration with and love for the people she served emanate from the page. The book reflects her academic background in her research about the community, and in her care to be truthful even though some names and locations are cloaked with pseudonyms.

I highly recommend this book for readers willing to reflect theologically and practically on the life of the church, the essentials of ministry, and the reality that all pastors and priests enter into it as Barbara Melosh did,

Unequipped. I had prepared for years, and learned more in my years with the Saints. But I was not equipped for what mattered most. Not equipped to deal with the deep questions. Not equipped to stand with people at the edge of life and death as they raged or grieved. Not equipped for the suffering or betrayals or violence that came without warning to shatter an ordinary life. No one is, and part of the work was learning to do it anyway, to come with empty hands and open heart, and let that be enough. (p. 154)

Amen to that.


In the interest of full disclosure, I used to be in a writing group with Barbara Melosh, and I read some of the chapters in earlier forms. I purchased a copy of the book for myself. This review is cross-posted at RevGalBlogPals.

Church Life, Psalms, Reflectionary

If two preachers…

Like many churches, the Presbyterian congregation my wife serves has seen what we used to think of as the fall return to a regular schedule pushed back from September to October and into November by travel team soccer and fall baseball, 5Ks and half-marathons at popular regional locations, Penn State football games (in our area), even cheerleading for elementary school girls. This year the staff decided to offer a worship opportunity late on Sunday afternoon, from mid-September through October, lined up with the time parents typically drop teens off for youth group. Kathryn planned a simple service using an Iona liturgy. After she joked several times that she would be reading it alone, I offered to come over to church at the appointed time. 

It was just the two of us the first week. And the second week. The third week Kathryn was out of town, and a few people joined the Christian Ed director, so we were hopeful that week 4 might bring more.

It was just the two of us again. 

We prayed and sang and engaged in lectio divina, just the two of us, for the third time in four weeks. This past Sunday’s psalm was 26, and we listened for the phrases that stood out for us, and talked about what was different for each of us and how we heard the verses for ourselves and for the other. It’s ironic, in this time of #ChurchToo, and knowing how important it is to be outside the walls of the church to be in ministry, and perhaps most of all because no one else had come to worship, that this verse popped for me.

If two preachers pray in the sanctuary, but no one else sees them, do they make any sound at all?

By all the metrics that matter in denominational surveys and material assessments, the 5:30 Sunday service could be called a failure. Yet as we left to walk back across the street to the manse, I thought, I would love to keep doing this, whether anyone else ever comes or not.

A version of this post appeared in the RevGals Weekly e-Reader

Reflectionary

My cup runneth over

Here in South Central Pennsylvania, my Jersey Girl wife and I have been happy to patronize a new-to-us sandwich chain, Jersey Mike’s. In the category of small pleasures, she likes the subs that remind her of childhood adventures with her dad, and I appreciate fountain Pepsi. When we met a friend for lunch there last week, I was stupidly excited to get that Pepsi.

It was busy at Jersey Mike’s, and the corner where the drink machine stands on a counter is awkward, so I stood back several paces and watched the tall, slightly disheveled man in work boots ahead of me. When his soda overflowed onto his hand and the floor, I was surprised and a little smug. What was the matter with him? Was he thinking about something else? First time using a drink machine?

I avoided the splash of soda on the floor and approached the machine, carefully getting lots of ice but not too much, then pushing my cup against the lever for the magic elixir …

and when I pulled the cup away, there was a carbonated shudder, and my cup overflowed, too.

The sound, the image, the sticky soda suited this past week. We think we have our actions under control, know how the system should work, make careful steps, do it all decently and in good order, yet things spill over anyway. We try to manage ourselves, our days, our feelings, and then the system we have in place burps, and it’s all on the floor.

The image of anointing in the 23rd Psalm is meant to reassure us of God’s care, but honestly, that had to be a mess, a scene, an over the top – literally – display not just for us but for those who threaten us. Remember, that table was set in front of the psalmist’s enemies.

Whatever feelings are running over the top of your cup, know I am praying for you, for all of us who doing our utmost to be faithful to God’s call on our lives, even when it makes a mess of us.

Originally written for the RevGals Weekly e-Reader.

Living in This World

The Good Place

We’ve had the date on the calendar for weeks. Tonight is the season premiere of the first show I’ve considered appointment television in many years. My family was late to “The Good Place,” but caught up about midway through last season. The show began its first episode with Eleanor (played by Kristen Bell) opening her eyes and learning she has died and is in The Good Place, but we quickly learn that she knows very well she doesn’t belong there.

The basis for this exploration of the afterlife is not religion. As Michael (Ted Danson), the architect of Bell’s Good Place neighborhood, tells her, no religion got it all right, but “every religion guessed about 5%.” Instead, the show explores moral philosophy – yes, it’s a comedy, but with content – and how some scholars have explained what makes our actions good or bad.

The show’s creator, Mike Schur, imagined a point system while stuck in Los Angeles traffic…

A screenshot from Michael’s explanation of the points system.

…and from there he built the concept of the show. (Don’t use “Facebook” as a verb, for instance; it’s -5.55.) The point system mostly revolves around the things we do in relationship to other people; it’s about consideration, respect, and awareness.

Or as Jesus put it,

“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.“ (Matthew 7:12, NRSV)

Eleanor is pretty terrible, selfish and defensive and crass and injured and broken. Would she have been different with even so much as a nudge toward goodness?

I hope I’m aware when I get a nudge, but most of the time I fear I am even more aware of the people I think could use a nudge. I wonder why they don’t pay attention to guidance that seems so obvious to me. I resent that many of those people call themselves Christian while committing what I perceive as acts of destruction. And it’s just not satisfying to think they might end up with a negative score. I want something to happen now.

How do we avoid despair? Humor helps, I believe, and knowing there are some people who think it matters how we treat each other, and how we treat the world. Still, we could use some help.

Jesus, be a nudge.

Originally written for the RevGals Weekly e-Reader.